Friday, July 24, 2009

What would a digital translation of The Grapes of Wrath look like?

Reading Jenn and Emily's post a couple weeks ago made me wonder: what if Emily is right, and the future of the book is digital not just in terms of format, but also in terms of medium? In other words, much like we moved from oral storytelling to books hundreds of years ago, what if over the next few decades we move to a new digital medium in which the hypertext, notes, reader comments, and so become just as much a part of the book as the original story?

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with this idea, but it seems to be popping up in a lot of online conversations. And perhaps it would be foolish to use the potential of digital books for nothing more than, as Emily aptly calls the current e-readers, storage devices. For non-fiction this might be as straight-forward as linking to sources in the text (hell, even most online newspapers do this already). For fiction the implications are broader and almost overwhelming.

Some modern books seem like they'd fit well into this format. I, for one, would be more likely to tackle Infinite Jest if I knew I could touch the screen at each footnote and have it pop up over the main text. But here's what I can't stop thinking about: if digital reading, with its attendant whatever-we-add-to-it, becomes the primary way we read, would we need to translate today's books to this new medium? Much like you're now more likely to read Beowulf instead of hear a traveling bard read it in the original, and similar to the way that many classics have been given a graphic novel edition, would it be necessary for the books we read now to be changed to fit the digital reading experience?

And if so, which books would we choose? I imagine that the process of making a book a digital book would be like a translation in many ways---not all books make the cut. Beowulf was not, after all, the only epic poem of its time, but it's the only one you'll read in tenth-grade English. Which, of all the books I've read, of all the books we have before us, might we choose for this new digital formatting for hapless fifteen-year-olds to read on their retinal-book-implant in 2100?

As you can tell, I have a long walk to work, and sometimes I take my wondering a bit too far. But as you ponder which books you love enough to work on their digital translation, check out this list of favorites, new and old, from the EL council:

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